You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight response” which refers to an innate response to a stressful or threatening situation. It’s a survival mechanism that we’re born with to protect ourselves from harm or danger.
For our early ancestors this was literally a matter of life or death in that these responses served to protect them from any number of life-threatening consequences. Fortunately, nowadays most of us don’t encounter seriously life-threatening situations with great frequency, but more commonly we all deal with stressful situations and circumstances that can feel threatening to our emotional safety and well-being and these are the times when the fight or flight response kicks in.
Now, like I mentioned, many of you have probably heard of fight or flight, and some of you may have even heard of fight, flight, or freeze... but did you know that there is a fourth stress response known as the appease response?
In this post, I’ll go over each of these four responses to stress and how they can show up in everyday life. I’ll also talk about the pros and cons of each of these stress responses.
Chances are, you’ll recognize that you’ve used each of these responses at various points in your life under various circumstances, and as you read through, you may find that there are one or two responses that you find yourself using most frequently. This is because these are the strategies that have worked best for you through your unique experiences, so they became your go-to strategies.
Here’s a summary of each of the four stress responses:
Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Appease
A fight response seems fairly self-explanatory, but it doesn’t always mean that when you feel threatened you jump into a fist fight or a conflict of some kind. The fight response can also refer to being intimidating, aggressive, responding with anger or frustration, arguing, or simply raising your voice. It can also mean being assertive and speaking with passion or speaking up for what you believe is right, or being protective and standing up for yourself or others.
When fight is your go-to strategy, often times this means you believe that the best way to ensure your safety is to show your power and take control of the situation.
You can feel empowered, you’re a strong advocate, you set firm boundaries, you have a quick reaction time, and you’re determined and persistent.
You can be intimidating, overly aggressive, and overly critical of others. You may have a hot temper and you can be impulsive – acting without thinking things through thoroughly or rationally. Your persistence can sometimes mean that you won’t back down or step away from an argument, even when it’s clearly not going anywhere. This can sometimes make a bad situation worse and lead to frequent conflict in your relationships.
Flight implies that you simply run away when faced with a threat, but it can also mean leaving a situation where something’s not working in hopes of finding something better. Or it can refer to avoiding challenging or threatening situations altogether or stepping back and disengaging when conflict arises or situations become more stressful.
An often overlooked part of the flight response is that it can also mean avoiding or stepping away from any uncomfortable feelings inside yourself. In other words, finding ways to escape & avoid difficult emotions.
This can show up in a number of different ways – staying busy to avoid your emotions, having difficulty sitting still or relaxing, procrastination, being an over-achiever, a workaholic, or a perfectionist - you keep busy and strive for perfection to avoid feelings of unworthiness or potential failure. It also can show up through overthinking, worry, and obsessive thinking – all of which are ways in which you try to think your way out of a problem, which can result in avoiding actually facing the problem head on.
When flight is your go-to strategy, you most likely believe that avoiding or moving away from danger is the best way to keep you safe and help you feel more in control of the situation.
You’re a fast thinker, hardworking, a creative problem-solver, analytical, and persistent.
Your efforts to avoid difficulty are not always the most efficient or productive use of your time. You might put more energy into avoiding or bypassing a problem than it would take to just face it directly and this can sometimes prolong your suffering or stress unnecessarily. Avoidance also leads to missed opportunities for learning and growth. When you are always busy or preoccupied, you’re also not as present or emotionally available in your relationships.
When you think of a freeze response you might think of a deer in the headlights or an opossum who “plays dead" when it's scared. And while you might not necessarily have the experience of “playing dead”, you might have had times when you felt stunned or in shock or paralyzed and unable to respond when you were overwhelmed or threatened. That’s a freeze response.
The freeze response can also include having a hard time making decisions and acting on them, disengaging or shutting down, pulling away or isolating from others, or going someplace else mentally, spacing out, or finding ways to zone out when you’re under a lot of stress (ie binge-watching). In some cases you might get to the point where you feel completely checked out, feel like you are having an “out of body” experience, or feel like you are in a trance.
The freeze response doesn’t always mean that you are checked out under stress, it can also mean that you are able to remain calm, cool, and collected and you take the time to observe and evaluate the situation before taking action. Rather than being aggressive or running away, you wait and see if the danger will pass or you let things unfold naturally.
When freeze is your go-to strategy, you believe that your best bet is to stay put and go unnoticed in order to stay safe and not add any extra stress.
You are able to be calm and show restraint under pressure. You are patient, perceptive, and you can navigate stressful situations with minimal added stress.
You can become disengaged, numb, isolated, and have a hard time getting moving or making decisions. This can lead to missed opportunities, and when you are shut down, you can be distant and detached in your relationships.
Much like the name implies, the appease response means you give people what they want or make efforts to smooth things over or pacify others when faced with a threat. This includes people-pleasing, striving to fit in and not stand out or ruffle any feathers in order to stay safe. This can come in the form of generosity, flattery, helpfulness, self-sacrifice, and being adaptable and agreeable – always saying yes and deferring to the needs, wants, and ideas of others to keep the peace and maintain harmony in a stressful situation.
When appease is your go-to strategy, you believe that giving people what they want and blending in with the crowd reduces risk and keeps you safe.
You are easygoing, adaptable, flexible, low drama, and low maintenance. You are quick to lend a hand, take one for the team, and you are loyal and resourceful.
So much focus on the needs and desires of others means you can lose touch with your own needs and desires and you can have a hard time making decisions for yourself. You can also have a tendency to overextend yourself to the point of depletion and you have a hard time speaking up for yourself and setting limits with others. Your extreme selflessness can teach people that you don’t have needs, or that your needs are less important, and you might often feel taken advantage of, unseen, unheard, and uncared for.
It’s valuable to become aware of your go-to stress responses and the beliefs associated with them, because it helps build self-awareness and understanding of why you respond and act in the ways that you do, and this allows you to have more compassion for yourself during challenging times.
Having compassion for yourself in this way can provide you with the necessary encouragement and understanding to keep you moving forward. Plus, with an improved self-awareness you can begin to recognize your responses while they are happening, rather than acting automatically. This allows you to slow down and it opens up the opportunity to make improvements and shift your responses as necessary.